Despite the fact that the topic can’t be found in business school curricula, much ado has been made about iconic leaders’ reliance upon their intuition and gut instincts.
“If you can make a decision with analysis, you should do so. But it turns out in life that your most important decisions are always made with instinct and intuition, taste, heart.” – Jeff Bezos in the Wall St. Journal article, “Feel the Force: Gut Instinct, Not Data, is the Thing”
“I rely far more on gut instinct than researching huge amounts of statistics.” — Richard Branson, Inc Magazine, “Iconic Entrepreneurs Use Their Intuition to Succeed. What You Need to Know About Following Your Gut”
“Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect.” — Steve Jobs, CNBC.com, “Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein both attributed their extraordinary success to this personality trait”
While there is disagreement in the business press about the degree to which gut instinct and intuition should factor into decision-making, there is unequivocal agreement that leaders should not ignore these feelings.
What intuition sounds like
Our team speaks to executive-level leaders from all walks of business life on a daily basis, and something we’re hearing with increasing frequency are expressions of intuition and gut instincts when it comes to their employees and company cultures:
- “I can’t put my finger on it but morale seems off.”
- “We’re all back from a long break over the holidays but it feels like just before we left, people seem tired and grumpy.”
- “Peoples’ attitudes aren’t what they were.”
- “We know we need to do work on the culture, that is clear.”
The four leaders who said these things to our team were all receiving gut-instinct messages. They knew they needed to do something, but the question was “What?” Their instincts were also warning them to be cautious, and seek answers rather than springing into immediate action.
Those are good instincts to heed. When it comes to your employees, following one’s gut can be a two-edged sword. Action isn’t what’s required – what’s needed is the right action. The trick is in balancing the instinct with information in order to find the right action to take that will help your team by honing in on the underlying issues that are causing problems.
A worst-case scenario
If you don’t get the balance right, chances are good you’ll end up with a wasted effort that falls flat with employees, and could even do more harm than good if employees read the gesture as an effort to whitewash over real issues.
Consider the following real-life scenario from a friend of this writer, whose small company was acquired last January by a multi-billion dollar global player. Over the summer, wages were cut by 20% across the board, even as business boomed and staff worked tirelessly to serve customers and work through tasks related to integration with the new parent company.
At the end of 2020, the parent company announced profits of $760MM, an increase of 15% year over year. The CEO sent a message of thanks to the employees of the division at which my friend is employed, thanking them for their efforts and noting that “something special is coming to you that you can share with your family.” In the next pay period, she noticed a small bonus on her paystub. After taxes, it came to $60.
“It would have been better if they hadn’t done anything,” she commented to me, describing the resulting negative reaction across the division’s employees, who were more interested in when the pay cut would end. In late January, my friend noted that it looked like the floodgates were starting to open, as a number of her peers were discussing leaving the company. Last weekend, she reached out to me to do a mock interview with her to prepare for a number of interviews she had scheduled this week.
This is an extreme example of an action that generated a result opposite of what was intended. However, when one thinks about the top employee concerns we observe in our aggregate engagement data, it’s easy to see why nice gestures such as a lunch delivery or extra day off fail to make an impact.
Just the facts, please
The top issues we see in our engagement data and employee data are:
- The desire for better communication from top leadership, including sharing their strategic vision for the company,
- The wish that department heads were are more present for their teams, who complain of lack of direction and alignment,
- Asking for leadership that is willing to listen to – and act upon – employee feedback.
As you can see, these are big issues, and we consistently find that employees offer thoughtful and considered input when asked for their perspective. Even more importantly, these insights represent facts – specifically, the facts which explain and validate the leader’s gut instincts.
This is where the magic of employee feedback becomes most evident – with it, a leader can turn a feeling into a fact upon which they can act. Asking employees for their feedback and assessing engagement across the enterprise are sure-fire ways to accumulate facts and data that describe what’s going on within the organisation, where and how prevalent those issues and opportunities are, and what actions leaders should take as a result.
Leaders: listen to your instincts, and turn those feelings into actionable facts by listening to your employees.